How J-Pop Stars Gain From the West's Obsession With 'Weird' Japan

Colorful content like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's "PonPonPon" goes viral overseas for its supposed bizarreness while resonating in a realer way at home.

Warner Music Japan

The crowd last month at Laforet Harajuku, an upscale shopping complex in Tokyo's most fashionable area, looked like it'd stepped out of Barbie's very messy dream house. Its members wore oversized bows, eyeball-shaped pinky rings, spiky neck collars, and pink—lots and lots of pink. They'd assembled to watch Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, a new face in J-Pop whose debut album Pamyu Pamyu Revolution was arriving in stores that day. She emerged dressed like her fans, with a giant bow on her head and in a dress designed like a Rubik's cube. For 30 minutes she performed her brand of cheery pop in front of a stage featuring building blocks, rotating teddy bear heads, and purple tentacles.

This mish-mash of imagery—cute meets creepy meets colorful—has helped turn Kyary (real name Kiriko Takemura) into one of the hottest young pop stars in Japan today and an Internet curio abroad. Powered by her surreal music videos and fashion sense, her first album debuted at the No. 2 spot on Japan's Oricon Charts, and her face has become inescapable (one could walk into a convenience store in May and see her on five magazine covers). She's also selling in America, recently topping the iTunes electronic charts, and her videos have gone viral abroad, sparking comment sections across the web loaded with one-liners like "who needs acid when we have this" and "Japan is weird."

Her American success stems in part from the West's ongoing fascination with "weird Japan." For more than two decades, Western media has highlighted and laughed at Japanese "strange" phenomena, from Gothic Lolita fashion and pre-Tupac hologram pop stars to more deviant subjects like used-panty vending machines and body pillows with anime girls on them (30 Rock poked fun at this one). It's an easy go-to story: Look at what bizarre stuff Japan is up to today—even if the subject is an extreme niche interest most ordinary Japanese people aren't even familiar with, or, alternatively, something that's culturally commonplace in Japan. Now, artists like Kyary are cashing in on this brand of foreigner curiosity.

The video for Kyary's first major single, last year's infectious "PonPonPon," certainly looks bewildering at first: Kyary, in a playroom surrounded by random knick-knacks, explodes into color as all sorts of surreal images enter the scene, ranging from pink tanks to Lisa-Frank-esque ducks to floating bread. The video has more than 27 million views, but most of the commentary ignores the music in favor of talking about the "wacky" clip. YouTube commenter pantoteiconoclasm sums up the consensus: "this is what you see if you could take the entire country of Japan and grind it into a fine powder, and snort it all in one go."

The "PonPonPon" video, though, isn't the result of any bad trip. It's a tribute to the Harajuku fashion scene that Kyary blogged about and modeled in before her pop debut. The seemingly random assortment of junk in the background reflects the fashion's guiding principle of being unafraid to mismatch items. Masuda Sebastian, a designer with prominent Harajuku brand 6%DOKIDOKI, designed the set, while her clothes bear the logos of other famous brands in the area. Even the hovering bread is just a pun: "Pon" is the word used to describe the sound of clapping, and it sounds a lot like "pan," which means bread. Harajuku fashion isn't common clothing across Japan, but most people know about it, meaning they would get what's going on. The West sees something bizarre and exotic in this, though—something American pop stars Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj (the self-proclaimed "Harajuku Barbie") have exploited as well.

Instead of scaling back, Kyary has only embraced colorful ideas that resonate with Japanese viewers and baffle Western ones (who promptly blog about it). Take her newest video for the single "Candy Candy." Viewers ranging from YouTube commenters to readers of The Hairpin wonder why she's running around with bread dangling out of her mouth, fighting a creepy version of herself, or firing a machine gun at a giant onion. Melissa Johnson on her blog The Mind Reels writes that nearly all of the images in "Candy Candy" are anime tropes, especially of a genre from the early '90s known as "girl's genre" (Sailor Moon being a good example). Where foreigners see "weird Japan," the Japanese see things that make them nostalgic.

Kyary isn't the only contemporary J-Pop act using nostalgia to win over audiences at home while having the same images get reblogged overseas. Momoiro Clover was originally a typical pop group, featuring six color-coded teenage girls. After one member left, they slapped a "Z" on the end of their name and rebranded themselves as super sentai—better known in America as the Power Rangers. Super sentai, though, has been on TV in various incarnations since the mid '70s in Japan. The video for "Legend of Z," where Momoiro Clover Z reintroduce themselves as super-power-blessed do-gooders, was again branded weird by foreign audiences , but Patrick Macias, editor-in-chief of Otaku U.S.A. magazine, writes that the clip features all sorts of callbacks to super sentai along with other subsets of Japanese culture.

Momoiro Clover Z isn't quite the viral success story compared to Kyary, but they have captured some online attention in the West while climbing up the Oricon charts thanks to this year's "Infinite Love." Set against the song's heavy-metal guitar chugging (courtesy of former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, now a J-Pop fanboy living in Tokyo), its eye-grabbing music video finds the group still in sentai mode, but now as space pirates riding bicycles around the solar system. Considering "Infinite Love" serves as the theme song for a Japanese cartoon called "Bodacious Space Pirates," this imagery starts making more sense...but most YouTube viewers see "space pirates" and have defaulted into "Japan! Crazy!" mode.

It's Kyary, though, who has managed success beyond landing on blogs. "PonPonPon" reached the top spot on the Finnish and Belgian iTunes electronica charts, while Pamyu Pamyu Revolution debuted at No. 1 on the US iTunes electronic chart. These aren't huge accomplishments by themselves—those charts change day to day—but it is impressive given how she didn't even try to promote it internationally. The history of Japanese pop music is littered with acts that hoped for success in the West, groups that did all they could to fit in with the Western pop world, only to end up selling dismally. Kyary ignores appealing directly to the overseas audiences, does nothing in tune with foreign pop trends, and yet manages to go viral and earn decent online sales from an album entirely in Japanese. She, intentionally or not, gave Western consumers what they wanted—something that made them think Japan really is weird.

Her Laforet concert ended with a scene that would similarly baffle most Western concert-goers: After performing, she judged a costume contest between several fans dressed as Kyary. It's the stuff of message-board jokes in America, but in Harajuku the scene turned touching. The contestants, as young as five and creeping into their late 20s, got visibly nervous around Kyary. Some went silent, while the winner cried. Kyary might be a meme in the West, but here she is a pop star.